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Choosing an Audio Interface (a.k.a. "sound card") for Hauptwerk

2015-04-09 - Hauptwerk Technical

The Most Common Question

The most common, question people ask is "can I use my computer's own sound card?". The answer is "it all depends".

The problem with most on-board sound cards is that the manufacturers are not overly concerned about audio latency. Latency is the time delay between the audio card receiving an instruction and the performance of that instruction. For many, regular applications, the delay doesn't matter. If you press play on an mp3, and the computer takes 2 seconds to start playing the mp3, who cares? However, if you press a key on your organ console and it takes 2 seconds for the sound to come out, you have a major problem.

The good news is that you can always try the existing sound card first. If it doesn't work, then you can move on to something better. If you are going to try the existing sound card, make sure you look to see if there is an ASIO version of the driver when you go to set up in General settings > Audio outputs. The driver that has "ASIO" in it is your first choice. It's your best chance at finding a low latency driver. If that's not there, try the others.

If you are having latency problems, don't like the quality of the sound or you need more channels, you'll need to find another sound card.



Picking A Sound Card Can Be Confusing

Do any google search for "sound card" or "audio interface" and you will end up with a crazy number of options. (Check out this Amazon.com search to see) This can be confusing even for semi-pros and takes a lot of wading through tech specs to see what a device can actually do.

By the way, these days "sound card" and "audio interface" are pretty much the same thing. A "sound card" can sometimes refer specifically to something you actually put into the PCI or PCIe slot of your computer motherboard. However, it doesn't have to. Similarly, an "audio interface" nominally refers to an external sound card often connected by a USB or Firewire cable but, again, it doesn't have to. Sound cards and audio interfaces do basically the same thing: They convert digital sound into analog sound (DA conversion) and/or analog sound into digital sound (AD conversion).

While there are too many variables for me to simply prescribe a particular solution for you, I can give you some guidance and questions to ask yourself that will help to narrow the choices down. Knowing the answers to these questions will either help you make the decision on your own or allow someone like me to point you towards a few products that might fit your needs.



Beginning With the End in Mind


Author Steven Covey popularized the phrase "Beginning With The End In Mind" in his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". Happily, this is probably where you want to start when you are thinking about which audio interface (aka sound card) you want to buy to use with your Hauptwerk system.

What Else Do You Plan to Use the Soundcard For?

If you're only using the sound card for Hauptwerk, then all you really need to worry about are 

  • How many output channels do you want?
  • What kind of ports do you have in your computer already? Firewire 400 or 800? USB2.0 or 3.0? PCI or PCIe slots? Thunderbolt 1.0 or 2.0 port/s?
  • How much of an audiophile are you? Are you looking for "the best of the best" or a good "dollar/performance ratio"
If you plan to use audio software other than Hauptwerk, make a list of what you're planning to use. Include any Digital Audio Workstation (DAW - e.g Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, Reaper, Studio One, Nuendo, etc), standalone software instrument (Vienna Symphonic Library, Garritan, etc), Notation software with an audio component (Sibelius, Novation, etc)... you get the idea.

Figure out what your maximum requirement is going to be for each application. Then take the each of those specs and use that as the basis for your audio interface search.

Extra questions you're going to want to answer:
  • What's the maximum sample rate I'm going to need? 
  • How many input channels do I need? Hauptwerk doesn't use input channels. This would be for other applications. So, if you're only using Hauptwerk, this doesn't matter. You only care about output channels.
  • Do I need/want mic preamps on any or all of those input channels? 

How Many Output Channels Do You Want?


The Advanced Edition of Hauptwerk allows you to use up to 512 discrete audio outputs. This means you can have over 500 channels with different sounds coming out of each channel. The Basic and Free editions allow you to have stereo (i.e 2 channels) output.

Hauptwerk's default is to run samples in stereo. If you are planning to use a standalone subwoofer, count that as 2 channels of output. So, if there are 8 outputs, you can use 6 for speakers and 2 will need to be for the sub.

This makes the audio routing much easier (see the audio routing tutorial). If you're planning to use speakers with integrated subs (like say a Definitive Technology Mythos STS) or if you're running the audio to a sub and connecting the left and right speakers directly into the sub, you don't have to allot 2 channels specifically for the sub only.

There are two aspects to the question that you should consider. a) How many channels do you want right now? b) How many channels do you want to end up with? 

People can't always afford all of the channels that they want right now. You may want 8 channels ultimately but have enough for the amps and speakers for 2 at the moment. You may consider getting an audio interface that has 8 output channels now even if you're only going to use 2 for the moment. This way, you only have to buy 1 device once instead of going on a hunt for a new device when you want to add more speakers.

Key Piece of Information

One majorly confusing thing to watch for on the specs of any interface is trying to figure out how many usable channels the thing actually has. One very popular interface says it has 18 channels of output. However that breaks down into 8 actual 1/4" audio channels, 2 channels for the Left and Right stereo headphone output, 2 S/PDIF coaxial digital outputs and 8 ADAT digital outputs. How many of those can you actually use to plug into your amps and speakers? You can use the 8 1/4" outputs and the 2 for the headphone jack.

Technically, this is an oversimplification, but look in the specs for how many 1/4" analog outputs the device has. That will give you a pretty good idea of how many channels you can actually use. Usually, if there is a headphone output on the device, the headphone feed comes from mirroring 2 of the 1/4" output channels. So, put your subwoofer on those 2 channels. 

If in doubt, ask whomever you're purchasing the interface from, "I have different signals coming out of each output. How many discrete, 1/4" analog outputs does this device have? ". You might also have them read our "Hauptwerk Home Audio Explained to Pro Audio Retailers" article.


Any Port of Call

There are lots of audio interfaces out there. Some are external boxes and use Firewire or USB to connect to the computer. Some use the PCI or PCIe slots inside your computer to connect. Some use a mix of an internal card and an external box. Knowing what ports that you already have will help you to weed out the interfaces that you can't readily use.

If you do not have a Firewire port, it's probably more trouble than it's worth to add one unless you're planning to use multiple USB sound cards of an identical type on a Windows PC. I would advise against using multiple, identical USB audio devices on a Windows machine. 

If you've got a Firewire port on your machine, figure out if it's a Firewire 400 or Firewire 800 port.



It's also good to know whether you have USB 2.0 ports or USB 3.0 ports (or both) on your computer. USB 3.0 ports are often blue in colour. It's useful to know this in order to troubleshoot driver conflicts between USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports and devices.

If you're planning to use an internal sound card, it's useful to know whether you have PCI slots or PCIe slots. They are not interchangeable and you need to check that your card and the slot are the same format before you go and buy the sound card. If you were planning to use a new Mac Pro, remember that there are no PCI or PCIe slots in the the Mac Pros. You would have to get an external card chassis (like this one), which is an added expense, in order to use the sound card.

Thunderbolt connectors are great because they can become all sorts of other ports with the right adapter. If you want to use a Firewire card on a computer that has a Thunderbolt port, you can just get a dongle adapter and you're good to go. Audio interface manufacturers are now starting to produce Thunderbolt-ready devices as well.


How Much of an Audiophile Are You?

How much is a car? How much is a good car? I mean one that's good value for money... You know as well as I do that the answer to those questions is highly personal and subjective. Not much is different with audio interfaces. You can get an 8 channel interface for $500 or you can get one for $1600. What's the difference?

I can shoot specs at you all day long but is that going to mean much to you? I know this premium priced instrument cable company whose ad says "If you can't hear the difference, you don't need this". It's a cool ad on a lot of levels. There's some truth to it too. If you don't really notice the difference in audio qualities, you probably don't need to go with a premium sound card... at least for now.

Here's my story: For years we used a variety of mid-level, prosumer type audio interfaces. Part of the reason was cost and part of the reason was me thinking "how much better could the premium ones really be?". Eventually, we purchased an interface from a premium manufacturer because we needed a lot of channels. We plugged set everything up and I couldn't tell the difference. It took so long to set up that any hope of an A/B comparison was destroyed.

However, I've been listening to it now for about 3 years. I had to strip our system down to take it to a trade show and went back to using a prosumer model that we had before. I set everything up and was testing it. It sounded kind of muted and less distinct. I couldn't figure out why and was checking everything under the sun. Then it dawned on me that I had been used to hearing the pristine audio conversion for so long that NOW I noticed the quality difference between the premium converters and the prosumer products.

What's my point? There is definitely a difference in sound quality. However, it's only worth it if it's something that you notice. If you've got the cash, by all means, get the premium converters. You won't be sorry. But don't feel bad either if you need to go with a mid-level, prosumer model. I guarantee, the sound will be better with that than what you could get out of any pre-fab digital organ out there.

One thing you will notice about prosumer converters is that their audio range tends to start at 20Hz. That doesn't necessarily mean that they don't go all the way down to 16Hz (to reproduce your 32' pipe) but it might be harder to coax those frequencies out of the device. A lot of the premium converters have a lot wider frequency outputs where you'll have no trouble sending 16Hz to your sub and you'll move a lot of air.


Maximum Sample Rate

Hauptwerk's practical, maximum is 24-bit (32-bit aligned) at 48 KHz. Most audio interfaces can handle that sample rate. However, do you need higher sample rates for other applications? If you plan to use 96KHz or 192KHz sample rates for whatever else you're doing, you'll want to make sure your audio interface can handle that.

Also make sure to check that it will handle your desired sample rate on the number of channels you plan to use simultaneously. Some audio interfaces will run 192KHz sample rates but only when using a small number of the actual number of channels.


That's All Folks...or maybe not.

Note that, in the end,  the speakers and amplifiers play a huge role in how good your sound quality will be as well. You can have an absolutely fantastic sound card. However, if you output it through bad speakers, those are your weak link. It won't fix the sound. In many ways, it's better to have great amps and speakers with a middle of the road sound card than it is to have a super-awesome sound card and crummy amps and speakers.

Using the basic questions, laid out above, will help you a long way down the road to finding the right sound card for your situation. If you have further questions, you can always contact us at www.midiworks.com, or me specifically at darrylw@organworks.com.

Darryl Wood



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